Suborbital Dreams: One Year After SpaceShipOne's Historic Flight
SpaceShipOne (center) rockets toward suborbital space as its carrier plane White Knight (top right) pulls away.
Credit: AP Photo/Pool, Jim Campbell.

The future looks bright for civilian suborbital spaceflight, with a host of private firms developing spacecraft to carry anyone with a willing heart and a robust bank account on the ultimate trip.

One year after the history-making suborbital space shot of SpaceShipOne, commercial spaceflight efforts continue to make headway through government regulation and technological hurdles, each with its eye on the space tourism market.

On June 21, 2004, the privately-built SpaceShipOne dropped from its White Knight mothership above the Mojave Desert and rocketed into history as the first civilian-funded spacecraft to reach suborbital space with a human pilot at the helm.

Built by aerospace veteran Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites firm, SpaceShipOne went on to make two more suborbital flights within two weeks between September and October 2004. The final two flights clinched the Ansari X Prize, a $10 million challenge, for SpaceShipOne's Mojave Aerospace Ventures company backed by entrepreneur and billionaire Paul G. Allen.

Virgin chief Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, a tourism firm licensing SpaceShipOne's technology for commercial suborbital flights, hopes to have a final design of its five-seater spacecraft by year's end.

"I'm still confident we will get there this year," Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn told SPACE.com. "Suborbital space tourism will prove that governments don't need to stand behind us in order to reach space."

Meanwhile, at least two firms, Canada's Canadian Arrow and New Mexico's AERA Corp., have announced plans to launch their first flights by 2007, while still others have chosen their spaceports, launch sites, completed propulsion studies or begun seeking launch approval from their host governments.

An annual celebration based on the efforts spurred by the Ansari X Prize, the X Prize Cup, plans to hold its first exhibition event in October 2005.

Building on what works

Among the more proven manned commercial launch concepts is Virgin Galactic's vision of VSS Enterprise and four other spacecraft that will round out its fleet of suborbital passenger carriers.

The five spacecraft and two evolved versions of SpaceShipOne's White Knight mothership will serve Virgin Galactic's initial, $208,000-a-ride flights, slated to begin by 2008.

"The fundamental technology doesn't change at all," Whitehorn said of going from SpaceShipOne to a commercial tourist-dependent business. "And over five years, we hope to get that price down to $50,000 or so."

Whitehorn's primary concern is customer safety, especially for Virgin's long record of air and train dependability.

"It will be our north star," Whitehorn said of passenger safety, adding that he plans to ride aboard the final test flight of VSS Enterprise before its inaugural launch. "I think one of the biggest risks to commercial spaceflight is that someone somewhere out there decides to launch before they're ready."

Arlington, Virginia-based Space Adventures also has a tried and true method of launch paying customers into space, though the price tag is admittedly much more than a Virgin Galactic flight.

Space Adventures has helped broker orbital flights aboard Soyuz spacecraft and the International Space Station (ISS) for two entrepreneurs, Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth, who each reportedly paid about $20 million for their trips. A fresh candidate for an ISS trip, New Jersey optics entrepreneur Greg Olsen, is currently training for his own spaceflight to the ISS, though an exact launch date has not yet been set.

Incremental steps

Also using proven launch technology is Canada's Geoff Sheerin, leader of the PLANETSPACE/Canadian Arrow effort to launch a passenger-carrying V2 rocket from the coast of Cape Rich, off the Georgian Bay.

Using the basic V2 rocket design from World War II and a proven Russian engine, Sheerin's firm has been taking incremental steps toward building a full-fledged civilian space center. The first manned Canadian Arrow spaceflights could take place by 2007.

"We have borrowed as much as possible for our design," Sheerin said in a telephone interview. "But there're modern materials and modern concepts that we have applied...all the aerodynamics are the same [as the original V2] but we'll save huge amounts of money on materials."

The Canadian Arrow effort - first started as an X Prize contender - received a shot in the arm from U.S. businessman Chirinjeev Kathuria, which led to the PLANETSPACE partnership.

"I'm assembling a very official organization here," Sheerin said, adding that suborbital tourist flights may be only the beginning. "If we do it right, we'll have this extraordinary space tourist organization."

The Canadian Arrow firm has already conducted a series of successful engine tests and hopes to integrated, captive engine firings by the end of summer. The first launch pad tests will shakedown the rocket's escape tower system - borrowed from a similar NASA system used in the U.S. space Agency's space capsules - in which rockets pull the Canadian Arrow crew capsule safely away from its booster and land with parachutes.

Other suborbital efforts underway include AERA Corp., with its research center based in Temecula, New Mexico. The firm has said it should have its first launch vehicle ready for flight by fall 2006. Five vehicles are projected to be ready in the first year of production, with six more to follow the next year.

Oklahoma-based Rocketplane, Limited plans hopes to rollout its sub-orbital spacecraft Rocketplane XP from Burns Flat in mid-2006. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin effort is developing a three-person, vertical launch spacecraft that could make its first test launch from West Texas in late 2006, according to media reports. The list goes on.

Pushing toward the future

Some groups hoping to stake their claim in the commercial spaceflight market have more than suborbital flights in mind.

The Poway, California-based aerospace firm SpaceDev recently completed a joint study with NASA's Ames Research Center to explore hybrid propulsion concepts that could be used in hypersonic testbeds for the development of future, reusable manned spacecraft.

The study is part of SpaceDev's plan to develop Dream Chaser, a reusable six-person spaceplane with a hybrid rocket engine. Based on NASA's X-34 program, Dream Chaser's current incarnation is that of an orbital spacecraft, though initial plans called for a suborbital version.

"We've changed our focus from suborbital to orbital," explained Jim Benson, SpaceDev CEO founding chairman, in a telephone interview. "By designing for an orbital vehicle, we get the side benefit of having a suborbital flight capability."

Benson said that the push by Virgin Galactic into the commercial suborbital business and NASA's evident need for a successor to the space shuttle, which is due to retire by 2010, were behind the orbital shift. He hopes SpaceDev's Dream Chaser, which could make its first suborbital manned flight by 2008, could be ready in time to be considered as a potential launch vehicle for NASA.

A separate group, Transformational Space Corporation (t/Space) of Reston, Virginia, is also vying for shuttle alternative consideration, and concluded prototype drop tests for its QuickReach II booster program this month.

"NASA needs to reduce its own risk by giving the smaller, non-traditional contractors a chance," Benson said. "If all the eggs are put into the giant contractor basket, something will probably come out, but it will be a lot more expensive."